Communications data is used by the law enforcement, security and intelligence agencies in their investigations. This is a crucial tool in the fight against crime and keeping people safe.
What is communications data?
Communications data tells us how information gets from A to B. A phone bill is the simplest example of communications data. It shows which phone number called another phone number, at what time and for how long. It does not show who was on either end of the phone or reveal any content of the conversation.
Telephone companies collect this information as part of their core business in order to send us our bills. In a similar way, many internet service providers keep records of which email address sent a message to another email address and at what time it was sent. We are less used to thinking of internet data being used in this way because we are not charged or billed for using the internet in the same way as we are for telephones.
All electronic communications; instant messaging, texting, social networking or online gaming generate communications data. This explosion of use in different communications methods in the past few years means that there are now many more records of how information travels from one place to another.
Why is communications data so important?
The police and the Security Service, as well as some other authorised bodies, use specific communications data on a daily basis to counter terrorism and investigate serious crime. Being able to show that a mobile phone belonging to one individual was used to contact another suspect’s phone just before a murder or terrorist attack can be vital evidence. Of course, communications data alone is often not enough to prosecute with but it can be crucial in “joining the dots”. And not only is it used as evidence, but it can also provide vital intelligence in stopping a serious crime and saving lives, whether it’s a kidnap victim, a missing child or a suicidal adult.
Communications data has played a significant role in every major Security Service investigation and in nearly all serious crime cases; it is a fundamental tool for policing. Communications data has helped to secure convictions in many high profile cases such as Soham, Rhys Jones and Gooch Gang murder cases.
In a recent case where a man raped a young boy police seized his computer and phones which revealed that he was swapping indecent images of children with a network of paedophiles. The phone and internet communications data gave police the vital information to identify the members of this group and arrest them.
In a Metropolitan police case, detailed investigation of mobile phone data led to the arrest of the two criminals masterminding an organised crime network responsible for the UK’s largest ever heroin seizure, 365 kilos.
And in the case of murdered taxi driver, Stuart Ludlam, police identified his killer through evidence linked to the last mobile phone number that contacted the taxi company.
Who can access communications data?
Communications data can only be acquired under strict safeguards and must not unduly interfere with our privacy or civil liberties.
Communications data can only be obtained by authorised agencies, for example the police, Security Services or emergency services. It can only be requested when there is a legitimate and specific need in relation to public protection. Requests for and use of Communications Data is governed by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) and the Data Protection Act.
The specific purposes for which communications data can be acquired are consistent with the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act.
Keeping up with changing technology
The UK communications market is one of the most highly competitive and technologically driven in the world. This means we now have access to many new forms of internet based communications, such as social networking sites, online role-playing games and instant messaging.
Criminals use new technology to communicate with each other and to target their victims. The police need to keep up with modern communication methods to be able to investigate serious crime. This is essential in protecting public safety.
Much of our current capability is based on an era of fixed and mobile telephones and was not designed to deal with the growth in the use of the internet. With internet service providers often based abroad, and fewer communications being itemised for billing purposes, investigative capability is declining.
The strategic defence and security review
The strategic defence and security review (SDSR) looked at the importance of our capabilities for counter-terrorism and serious organised crime and assessed that communications data and lawful interception capabilities are vital for counter-terrorism and fighting serious organised crime.
The SDSR report confirmed that we will continue to build on an existing programme of work to preserve the ability of the law enforcement, security and intelligence agencies to obtain communications data and to intercept communications within the appropriate legal framework. We will legislate to ensure this is compatible with the government's approach to civil liberties and use of communications capabilities.
The Communications Capabilities Development programme was set up to look at how we can preserve communications capabilities to protect the public in the future, as internet-based communications technology becomes increasingly popular.
We are already addressing some of the challenges posed by changing communications services by improving the training of investigators and by improving the efficiency and safeguards for acquiring communications data; however we need to do more.
Our work is about maintaining existing capabilities and established and effective ways of tackling serious crime and countering terrorism. It is not about developing new, more intrusive powers.
When legislating, which we have committed to do in the SDSR, striking the balance between the right to privacy and the right to safety will both be paramount. The ongoing use of current communications data capabilities will be focused and proportionate with strict safeguards in place to prevent any abuse of data. Details of this legislation will be announced in Parliament in due course.